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The Bradley Buzz

With the timing and skill befitting a former basketball star, Bill Bradley has elevated his game to that of a candidate who has a shot of winning the Democratic presidential nomination.

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By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 26, 1999


MANCHESTER, N.H. -- As nights turn cooler and leaves turn brighter, Bill Bradley is making Al Gore sweat.

The former New Jersey senator is virtually tied with the vice president in Democratic primary opinion polls in New Hampshire and New York. The former professional basketball player once nicknamed "Dollar Bill" for his clutch play is raising millions. And the man who said politics was broken when he left the Senate three years ago still knows the game, downplaying expectations while slowly picking up endorsements from people like Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y. "Somebody came up to me and said, "You have momentum,"' Bradley recounted last week at the opening of his Manchester headquarters in a red-brick mill turned furniture warehouse. "I said, "No we don't. What we have is maybe a little traction.' "

What Bradley is methodically building is an aura. With timing and skill reminiscent of his no-look basketball passes, he and his supporters have transformed the campaign's image from a quixotic fling to a legitimate longshot.

The political buzz they have generated is not that Bradley will upset Gore for the Democratic nomination for president.

It is that he might.

First there is the money, the earliest measure of a candidate's legitimacy. Bradley quietly raised nearly $12-million in the first six months of the year. That's only about $2-million less than Bob Dole had raised at the same point in 1995.

Then comes the portrayal of Bradley as American success story. To paint Norman Rockwell portraits of the small-town-boy-made-good, Bradley brought the national media to Crystal City, Mo., his tiny birthplace on the Mississippi River. The message is crystal clear. Bradley lived there until he went to Princeton; Gore spent summers on a farm in Tennessee but much of his childhood in a Washington hotel while his father was a senator.

Then there is Bradley's well-known star power -- the basketball legend, the former Princeton All-American, 1964 Olympic gold-medal winner and sharp-shooter who helped the New York Knicks win two world championships in the '70s.

If Bradley is not signing a basketball, he is raising money with former teammates like Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson. Or he is posing for pictures with the University of New Hampshire basketball team. Or he is telling a story, like the one about visiting the White House as a new Olympic champion and having President Johnson refuse to pose for a picture because Bradley was taller at 6 feet 5.

Finally, there is Bradley the Rhodes Scholar.

He lectures like a college professor on issues such as the globalization of the economy and the impact of technology and immigration on America. He talks about "big ideas" in areas such as health care, poverty and race relations. So far, he has danced around the specifics, though he is expected to offer details this week when he unveils his health care proposal in California.

All of these ingredients have been carefully mixed to enhance Bradley's image as a star athlete who also is an intellectual, as an outsider shooting for higher goals even though he spent 18 years in the Senate. The aim is to plant in voters' minds the notion that strong economy notwithstanding, the sitting vice president is not a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination.

It is a mix that has appeal in New Hampshire, where voters are proud of their independence and penchant for boosting an underdog's chances.

Dorothy Emery, a 73-year-old grandmother with hair as white as her tennis shoes, is one of those voters who pays no attention to conventional wisdom. She has worked for longshots before, volunteering for the late Paul Tsongas in 1992 and for former Illinois Sen. Paul Simon before that.

She said Bradley is different.

"He comes out pretty perfect, he's electable," Emery said as she crowded into his Manchester headquarters to see him for the first time. "What kind of life have any of us had compared to his?"

Even better than Bradley's resume is his timing.

In 1965 the writer John McPhee wrote a long article in The New Yorker about Bradley that turned into a book, A Sense of Where You Are. It described the Princeton star's ability to anticipate developments on the basketball court, to recognize openings others couldn't.

Now the 56-year-old Bradley has seen something else. He is the only Democrat challenging Gore for the party's nomination. And it turns out that Clinton scandal fatigue may hurt Gore more than anyone else suspected.

In New Hampshire, Bradley supporters don't have a bad word to say about Gore or the Clinton administration's policies. They just want to get as far away as possible from Clinton's impeachment and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

"I have guilt feelings about abandoning Gore, but we need a new face," said Roger Blais of Manchester, a 62-year-old college French teacher.

"Gore is a decent man, but he's sort of tainted by being part of this administration, and this administration has been a big disappointment because of the scandal," said Mary Lorenz, a 52-year-old freelance writer from Durham, N.H. A September poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center shows Bradley and Gore in a statistical tie here. A 45-point Gore lead in May has evaporated. Even worse, 24 percent of the likely Democratic primary voters gave Gore an unfavorable rating -- three times worse than Bradley's.

The vice president, of course, remains the favorite for the Democratic nomination.

Gore has more money, more endorsements among party activists and members of Congress, and the considerable powers of the White House at his disposal. He still leads Bradley by more than 30 points in the latest CNN poll and enjoys a significant advantage among black voters.

Yet Gore's campaign is glancing over its shoulder at Bradley even as it looks ahead to Republican front-runner George W. Bush. The campaign is concerned enough about Bradley's progress to reportedly consider early debates, an extraordinary suggestion for an incumbent vice president facing an opponent still introducing himself to many voters. Gore supporters also are picking through the former senator's voting record and sending young supporters to Bradley events in New Hampshire with Gore news releases.

Republicans are happily piling on, hoping Bradley weakens Gore the way Pat Buchanan roughed up President George Bush in 1992 and Steve Forbes scarred Dole in 1996. They cite polls that show Bradley does better than Gore against Bush, and they whisper that Bradley would be the Texas governor's toughest opponent.

GOP pollster Frank Luntz said one poll indicates 37 percent of Republicans, 52 percent of independents and 48 percent of Democrats say they could vote for Bradley.

"You will not find anyone else with that political reach," Luntz said. "He is still an underdog by far, but for the first time he is in the race."

And Bradley plays the underdog advocating change.

"We're running against establishment power," Bradley warned supporters on his 10th trip to New Hampshire since January, "and we still don't have the same kind of forces and firepower as the other side."

What Bradley has is a plan.

He has staked out positions just to the left of Gore's, running a race aimed at winning Democratic primary votes. The vice president wants to license gun owners, but Bradley also wants to register all handguns and recalls Robert Kennedy's assassination when he advocates gun control.

Gore supports the Clinton administration's call for a ban on soft money, the unlimited contributions to political parties. But Bradley also wants to use public money to help pay for federal campaigns. His health care plan also is expected to be more ambitious than the vice president's.

In his book Time Present, Time Past, Bradley observes: "If you're the incumbent and the economy is good, then all you have to do is remind people you are at least partly responsible and prevent your opponent from changing the subject."

But in New Hampshire, the economy is so good most people are not worried about an economic downturn as they were in 1992, or even sustaining good times, as they were four years ago. The unemployment rate is 2.3 percent, the nation's second-lowest, and the state is begging for more toll booth workers with flashing signs along the highway.

Instead of promising to rejuvenate the economy as other candidates in other years have done, Bradley said the issue is how to capitalize on prosperity. In an auditorium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., the old library in Dover and the new barn in Lee, the former senator said government should increase the number of people with health insurance and reduce the number of children living in poverty.

"Government should do fewer things, but it should do them bigger and more thoroughly," he said at the Dover library. "I think if we are trapped in the world of incrementalism, then we cannot ultimately be what we can be as a country."

Whether Americans are ready for big ideas in good times is uncertain.

"He has a dilemma," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "This country is doing better than it ever has. If big ideas are defined as radical ideas, it is not the best time for them. I don't think they will be radical, but if they are not big, then people will say, "Oh yeah, we've seen this before."'

Bradley's strategy for sticking with Gore is more conventional. He wants to exceed expectations in the Iowa caucuses in late January and in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary in early February. Then he wants to break through in the March 7 bonanza of at least a dozen primaries, which includes elections in his home state of New Jersey, New York and California.

Despite spending considerable time campaigning in California, raising more than $840,000 in San Francisco and lecturing at Stanford University, Bradley still trails Gore there by a large margin. That's no doubt why he's returning there for four days this week and will announce his health care proposal Tuesday in Los Angeles.

How well Bradley does on March 7 in California and elsewhere will determine whether he will be around for Florida's primary a week later.

Neither Bradley nor Gore has campaign staffers in the state, in part because the nomination could be decided before Florida's March 14 primary. While Bradley spent a day in St. Petersburg during the Final Four basketball tournament in March, he has not made a major campaign swing through the state.

Yet he has quietly made inroads.

It is predictable that Gore would raise more than $1-million as the incumbent vice president who has been to Florida more than three dozen times over the past seven years. It is more surprising that Bradley would raise more than $450,000 in Florida with virtually no media coverage or endorsements from public officials.

Leading his fundraising is Steve Pajcic, a Jacksonville lawyer, former state legislator and unsuccessful candidate for governor in 1986.

Pajcic met Bradley when they both played basketball at Princeton, and Bradley campaigned for Pajcic. Bradley's contribution list reflects Pajcic's connections and is filled with Jacksonville business leaders, Princeton graduates and trial lawyers.

Pajcic calls Bradley "one of the 31/2 people who could be elected president." He offers full chances to Gore, Bush and Bradley and a half-chance to Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

"It's not that I dislike Gore, I just like Bradley better," said Pajcic. "He would be a better president because he sees the big picture better."

Some Florida contributors to Gore also have given to Bradley, a signal the vice president's support is not rock-solid.

Bill McBride, who has contributed $1,000 to both candidates and is the managing partner at Holland & Knight, the state's largest law firm, said Bradley has stepped out front on issues he considers important, such as gun control.

"If Bradley could win in either New Hampshire or Iowa," McBride said, "I think he would have to be taken as a very, very serious contender then. Gore has a lot of work to do to shore up things so that eventually people don't move quickly from him to Bradley."

Florida Democratic Party Chairman Charles Whitehead said he expects most elected Democrats and party activists to support Gore. But he also expects Bradley to mount a serious campaign.

"We'll be down there," promised Bradley, who is expected to swing through the state later this fall. "We have to do well there."

Bradley's buzz has its price. The questions are getting tougher.

He has been forced to justify his new support for government subsidies for ethanol after opposing them in the Senate. He said talking to Iowa farmers convinced him to switch positions.

He also has been asked about his opposition to the 1996 changes to welfare laws, which Gore supported. Bradley said the law has since been loosened to restore benefits to legal immigrants and to expand Medicaid and food stamps.

In an MIT auditorium packed with 300 college students, a former teacher from Tampa asked Bradley to justify his Senate votes for experiments with private tuition vouchers. Bradley said he was responding to concerns raised by parents of children in New Jersey's poor urban schools but does not think vouchers are the solution to public education's problems.

The real solution, he said, is to help teachers do their jobs better.

Deb Gist-Evans, 32, who taught at Tampa's Northwest Elementary and is working on a master's degree at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said Bradley's answer was acceptable.

"But how realistic is it that he will be the nominee?" she asked.

Bush has been labeled the compassionate conservative, Gore the new Democrat. Bradley?

"An intellectual jock," he joked at MIT.

It fits.

Bradley rarely talked about his basketball career during his Senate days as he worked on tax reform and other complex issues.

"He could have easily degenerated into the sound bite guy nobody took seriously," Ornstein said. "Instead he almost willfully stayed out of the spotlight for a couple of years and built a reputation as a hard-working, serious guy."

Basketball comes up often now. Bradley refers to his experiences on the Knicks when he talks about how he has traveled the country. He sees a bumper sticker as the ultimate conversion: "Another Celtics Fan for Bradley."

In Manchester, a man asks Bradley to sign a beat-up basketball he bought for a quarter at a yard sale. In Portsmouth, a lawyer recalls reading John McPhee's profile of Bradley as a young basketball fan.

"I see the same qualities now -- dealing with competition, a work ethic, knowing the game," said 47-year-old Jim Noucas.

But Bradley also can put audiences to sleep as easily as Gore with his detailed lectures about campaign finance reform. Short answers are for questions he considers intellectually suspect.

Is the only difference between Bradley and Gore that Bradley played basketball and Gore is vice president?

"I admit, I was in the NBA."

Any downside to being president?

"If you want me to be mundane, I like to drive. Unless you are Lyndon Johnson and have a big ranch, you can't do that."

How are you going to win?

"If I could defer revealing my full strategy this morning, I hope you will appreciate that."

The more complete answer to that question, Bradley supporters say, has to do with his image as a thoughtful athlete and politician.

And that he's not Gore.

"I talk to a Gore supporter and they say what a nice guy he is and I agree," said 76-year-old Earl Goodwin at the Dover library. "I talk to a Bill Bradley supporter and their eyes light up."


-- Times Washington Bureau Chief Sara Fritz contributed to this report.

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